Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 11, 2002
Do Catholics still fast today?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
We hear a lot about the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. They seem to take it so seriously. We, Catholics, used to be noted for our fasting too. Where do Christians, especially Catholics, stand regarding fasting today?
The 40 days of Lent have traditionally been our fasting period. It was an important time of the liturgical year. It still is, although the way of observing it may be more flexible, it is more difficult. Now we are given the responsibility in determining the type and amount of fasting we do.
It was simpler and easier when the Church dictated exactly from what and how we should fast and we knew everyone else was obligated in the same way. But how much more worthwhile it is when we take our adult Christian responsibility seriously.
Fasting comes to us from Jesus and his Jewish tradition. The Hebrews fasted for a variety of reasons: in thanksgiving, to express grief and repentance, to request safety from the enemy and other favours.
Usually a Jewish fast would entail one day although there are a number of examples of prolonged fasts. Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days and so did Jesus. The Church's official title for Lent is Quadragesima, Latin for 40.
The New Testament also speaks of fasting. Anna was in the Temple "fasting and praying night and day" (Luke 2:37). Jesus also tells us not to display our fasting but to fast in secret so that only God sees and rewards.
The disciples asked Jesus why they were unsuccessful at casting out a devil. Jesus responded, "This kind only comes out through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21).
Fasting was an integral part of early Christian life and was incorporated into the Church's lifestyle. The disciples prayed and fasted (Acts 13:2); Paul fasted for three days after his conversion (Acts 9:9). Early Christians left the affluence of the cities to pray and fast in the desert.
Why fast? Augustine wrote that "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the Spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity."
Fasting does not change God; it changes us; it cuts off a little of our attachment to things. Fasting reminds us of God's continual presence. Fasting acknowledges that we are sinners in need of redemption. Fasting frees us from our addictions to food and drink.
Giving up food voluntarily in our society of abundance is a means of solidarity with the hungry, as well as the earth which provides our sustenance. Fasting promotes self-discipline; it strengthens the will. Refusing something that is inherently good enables us to reject something that is less good or evil.
There have been a variety of types of fasts kept during Lent. Catholics had two light meals which were to be less than the one full meal a day. In addition, they observed abstinence from meat (which is different from fasting) every Friday.
Some Christians kept a black fast, which meant not only that they reduced their food quantity but also abstained from dairy products (hence the name black) and other foods along with abstaining from meat.
Unless we are changed interiorly, fasting will do us little good spiritually. We are to fast in many other ways too: giving up pleasures and comforts, our impatience and temper, our insatiable need to possess things and our addictions to work; reconciling with others; and cultivating faith and hope. Akin to fasting is almsgiving, that is, giving of ourselves and our time, as well of our material goods.
Specifically how should one fast? Give up a favourite food for the entire 40 days. Instead of going out at lunch, take a healthy sandwich to work. Cut down on the amount of food. Instead of fast food in front of the TV, sit down with the family for a healthy meal. Plan a fast for one day of the week so as to prepare yourself for the Good Friday fast - one of our two official obligatory fast and abstinence days during Lent.
Fast for the 40 days from your addiction (alcohol, tobacco, VLTs, Internet chat rooms, etc.) and you may be free of that addiction for good. Look at family relationships, as there may be something to improve.
Of course, you need to think through some of the possibilities and decide what is feasible for your strength and health. Take time to do that now before Lent begins.
Fasting and prayer go together. During Lent, take time for prayer: daily Mass, morning and evening prayer, Stations of the Cross; the rosary with deeper contemplation of the sorrowful mysteries.
Reflect on the readings of the day's Mass, on Old Testament texts that tell us of the coming of the Messiah and New Testament texts about the passion and death of Jesus. Spend time with your family discussing the meaning and importance of Lent, its fasting and prayer.
Let's begin to take the Lenten fast and prayer more seriously in our homes, churches and schools. We can learn a lot from the eagerness with which Muslims observe their fast.
Don't envy them. Just remember ours is every bit as serious but it's up to each of us to be serious about our fasting and prayer. Let us begin right away this Lent. Remember Ash Wednesday is our first fast and abstinence day.